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8 Species of Turtles in Kentucky (Pictures, Facts)

Kentucky is known for its diverse wildlife, with the Appalachian Mountains and the Ohio River providing a rich and varied habitat for countless species. Among the many creatures that call Kentucky home are turtles, which can be found in streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds throughout the state. Turtles in Kentucky come in all shapes and sizes, with their own distinct characteristics and behaviors. 

Collage photo turtles in Kentucky

8 Turtles in Kentucky

In the below list, we’ll take a closer look at Kentucky’s turtles, learning about their habitats, behaviors, and what sets each apart from the other species. 

1. Eastern box turtle

Eastern box turtle
Eastern box turtle | Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay
  • Scientific name: Terrapene carolina
  • Length: 4.5 – 6 inches
  • Weight: usually less than one pound

The Eastern box turtle is a terrestrial turtle that lives all over Kentucky. It prefers areas with a mix of forested and overgrown fields, as well as moist underbrush near springs, seeps, and small creeks. They have a high-domed, dark brown carapace that‘s decorated with patterns in either yellow or orange. 

They can completely enclose themselves thanks to their hinged plastron, offering exceptional protection. The omnivorous eastern box turtles eat plants, fruits, insects, and other small animals. 

2. Red-eared slider

Red-eared slider
Red-eared slider | image by hedera.baltica via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Scientific name: Trachemys scripta elegans 
  • Length: 15 – 30 cm
  • Weight: up to 240 g

The Red-eared slider is a medium-sized aquatic turtle found in the state. These turtles have an olive to brown shell with yellow markings, and are easily recognizable by the red patch behind each eye, which is how they got their name.

Red-eared sliders, which are well known for their adaptability, are opportunistic omnivores who eat a variety of things, including plants, insects, and small vertebrates. 

In Kentucky, you can find these creatures in different bodies of water like ponds, lakes, and streams with slow-moving water. They can also be seen in manmade habitats like ditches and canals. 

3. Ouachita map turtle

Ouachita map turtle
Ouachita map turtle | image by smashtonlee05 via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
  • Scientific name: Graptemys ouachitensis
  • Length: 3.5 – 10.25 inches
  • Weight: no specific numbers, but males are much smaller than females

The Ouachita map turtles are a type of highly aquatic reptile found in Kentucky’s western and northern regions, primarily along the Mississippi River drainage. Their carapace is olive to brown in color and has intricate yellowish map-like patterns. Additionally, there is a prominently raised keel at the center. 

They’re also distinguished from other turtles by the unique serrated edges on their carapace. The Ouachita map turtles tend to favor large water habitats, like rivers and big streams with plenty of vegetation. 

4. False map turtle

False map turtle
False map turtle | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
  • Scientific name: Graptemys pseudogeographica
  • Length: 3.5 – 10.75 inches
  • Weight: 2.5 – 4 pounds

The false map turtle is among the species of map turtles that inhabit the state. The reptile species is known to occupy certain regions of Kentucky, specifically the Mississippi and Ohio River networks. The carapace of the species is characterized by a range of colors from olive to dark brown, featuring light, map-like lines and a rear edge that’s moderately serrated. 

False map turtles exhibit a preference for large rivers and streams that offer ample basking locations. Their diet is primarily carnivorous, consisting of invertebrates, insects, and small fish. 

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5. Southern painted turtle

Southern painted turtle
Southern painted turtle | image: USFWS Midwest Region | Flickr | CC 2.0
  • Scientific name: Chrysemys dorsalis
  • Length: 4 – 6 inches
  • Weight: 2 – 4 pounds

The Southern painted turtle is a small aquatic species that inhabit the low-lying areas situated between Reelfoot Lake and the City of Hickman, located in the state of Kentucky. The carapace of this creature exhibits a coloration ranging from olive to black, with a distinct red-orange stripe along the middle. 

Red, yellow, and black patterns can also be seen on their plastron. They prefer to live in shallow waters with muddy bottoms, such as ponds, swamps, and ditches, so that’s where you’ll most likely find them. 

6. Common Map Turtle

Northern map turtle
Northern map turtle | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
  • Scientific name:  Graptemys geographica
  • Length: 3.5 – 10.75 inches
  • Weight: 1.5 – 5.5 pounds

One of the species you can mainly find in central and western Kentucky is the common map turtle. Like other map turtles, they have an olive to brown carapace with yellow or greenish, map-like lines and a definite central keel. These animals favor bodies of water where there are lots of fallen trees or other debris so they can enjoy the sun. 

In this species, it’s observed that female adults display a greater size compared to their male counterparts, with males reaching a maximum length of 6.2 inches. 

7. Eastern River Cooter

Eastern river cooter
Eastern river cooter | image by smashtonlee05 via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
  • Scientific name: Pseudemys concinna concinna
  • Length: 9 – 12 inches
  • Weight: 8 – 11 pounds

The Eastern River Cooter is native to the northeastern and central United States as well as eastern Kentucky. They have an elongated oval-shaped, flattened carapace with light and dark brown markings that may include green, yellow, brown, and black patterns. 

The Eastern River Cooters exhibit a preference for residing in freshwater environments that are permanent in nature, although they have also been observed in tributaries of saltwater. 

8. Mississippi Map Turtle

Mississippi map turtle
Mississippi map turtle | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
  • Scientific name: Graptemys pseudogeographica kohni
  • Length: 6-10 inches 

The Mississippi Map Turtle is a species of reptile that lives in the Mississippi River and all of the rivers that flow into it; as a result, you can find it in the state of Kentucky as well. Insect larvae make up the majority of the diet for both males and females of this species, however, males will also consume small amounts of fish carrion and some vegetation.

The markings on their carapace are yellowish with dark borders, and a prominent ridge runs along the center.